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Inquiry into abuse allegations against bishop rushed to judgment, says review

Bishop Bell passed away a few months after his retirement.

A Church of England inquiry into child abuse allegations against one of its most respected bishops almost 60 years after his death has been criticised for “rushing to judgment” by an independent review.

The review, led by Lord Carlile of Berriew, found the inquiry into Bishop George Bell was too quick to accept the allegations of the complainant “without serious investigation or inquiry”.

Claims made by a woman known only as “Carol” of abuse by Bishop Bell when she was aged between five and eight in the 1950s led the Church to issue an apology and pay more than £15,000 in compensation in 2013.

But the inquiry was widely criticised for failing to investigate the victim’s claims or seek witnesses who had known or worked for Bishop Bell during his tenure as Bishop of Chichester between 1929 and 1958.

Bishop Bell died a few months after his retirement.

The inquiry led to the cancellation of a planned statue in Canterbury Cathedral celebrating the bishop’s work helping to rescue Jewish children transported out of Germany during the Second World War.

Bishop Bell’s name was also removed from a room at the University of Chichester, while a building in the town was also renamed.

Lambeth Palace commissioned a review of the original investigation following criticism from Bishop Bell’s supporters that not enough was done to substantiate the complainant’s allegations, and after no other alleged victims came forward despite a helpline being set up.

Lord Carlile emphasised that the review was not to establish the truth of Carol’s claims, but only to investigate the Church’s handling of the case and establish best practice for handling future complaints.

He recommended that a trained legal professional be involved in future investigations into child sexual abuse by the clergy, and also that an advocate be assigned to the deceased clergyman as well as the complainant.

Controversially, he also recommended that where a settlement was reached without admission of liability, the settlement should include a confidentiality provision for the alleged abuser.

He said: “I have concluded that the Church of England failed to institute or follow a procedure which respected the rights of both sides,” he wrote.

“The Church, understandably concerned not to repeat the mistakes of the past when it had been too slow to recognise that abuse had been perpetrated by clergy and to recognise the pain and damage caused to victims, has in effect oversteered in this case.

“In other words, there was a rush to judgment.”

But Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said he disagreed with the recommendation of confidentiality.

He said in a statement: “Bishop George Bell is one of the great Anglican heroes of the 20th century. The decision to publish his name was taken with immense reluctance, and all involved recognised the deep tragedy involved.

“However we have to differ from Lord Carlile’s point that ‘whereas in this case the settlement is without admission of liability, the settlement generally should be with a confidentiality provision’.

“The C of E is committed to transparency and therefore we would take a different approach.”

He added that the allegations against the Bishop did not “diminish the importance of his great achievement”.

“No human being is entirely good or bad. Bishop Bell was in many ways a hero. He is also accused of great wickedness,” he said.

“Good acts do not diminish evil ones, nor do evil ones make it right to forget the good. Whatever is thought about the accusations, the whole person and whole life should be kept in mind.”

Lord Carlile also said that by implicitly accepting a complainant’s allegations as true without fully investigating, the Church risked a flood of allegations from “unscrupulous” complainants who viewed it as “a source of easy money”.

Carol, now in her 70s, alleged that Bishop Bell would take her into his study and sit her on his lap to read to her before touching her intimately and inciting her to touch his genitals.

Despite the publicity around the case, no other complainant has come forward.

Lord Carlile traced two other children living in the palace – an evacuee and the Bell family’s housekeeper’s daughter – during a similar period who described the bishop as kind and had no memories of “anything weird about him”.

He criticised the investigation for not seeking out contemporary witnesses, prompting him to call for someone with legal experience to be involved in each investigation.

He wrote: “I consider that an inquiry into the facts by somebody with criminal investigative experience could well have found [the housekeeper’s daughter], especially after a call for evidence.”

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